Daniel Shea: A couple weeks ago I called Alec at his studio in Minnesota. I put my phone on speaker and recorded the conversation with an analog tape player. Here is the result.
Daniel Shea: For me, part of being an artist and a photographer is existing in a state of constant reconciliation. For example, reconciling a work’s inevitable reading in a gallery or book form and the work’s initial intentions. There’s reconciling the business and the love of the practice. There’s reconciling an interest in taking photography to a new place and loving the inherent qualities of a rather traditional medium. Do you agree, are you in a state of constant reconciliation?
Alec Soth: Yes, although, one thing I’ll allow myself is great freedom in terms of the way the work is read or what have you. I just found that at a certain point I wasn’t a photographer on a mission. I’m interested in something more like poetry in that the work can be interpreted in different ways. I’m cool with people taking whatever they want to take from it. There would be more reconciliation necessary if I was trying to alter the political infrastructure of Colombia. There is some of it, just not as much, certainly the commerce side of it, it exists (laughter).
DS: So do you find the reconciliation process taking place in terms of commerce?
AS: Yeah, I mean there was a time in my life where I essentially made the work for myself and had no audience, and thus no commerce. And there was great freedom in that, but of course it was miserable (laughter). I mean you want people to see the work…
DS: Well, you’re talking to the right audience about that for this website…
AS: But then it flips and then you have an audience and people buy work and that’s great. But there’s all this crap that comes along with it. And you just don’t have that same kind of purity of intention, it’s a little bit lost, it’s different. Which is not to say I make work for the market place.
DS: Well, I guess when reading interviews with other established artists, making work and existing in the market, there’s less reconciliation, rather just acceptance of it being what it is, funding for the next personal project, a family…
AS: It’s always evolving on a project-by-project basis. It’s funny because I’m quite secretive about the work I’m in the middle of usually, although it’s getting harder and harder to do that. There’s just constantly a demand to talk about what I’m working on. Even in an interview like this, just someone asking you your opinion, I think it’s a good thing, but it also just makes you self-conscious.
DS: Do you think that’s highlighted with increasing attention over the years?
AS: Well I don’t know if the attention is still increasing. I mean there was an explosion at one point, and now it’s mellowed down. I’m really actually quite happy right now. I think everyone regardless of media goes through that moment, where you get the exposure, and then there is all the pressure of the second project, the sophomore slump. Now I’m beyond all that, which is good, I’m a little more mellow than I used to be.
DS: Along those lines, while doing some research for this interview, I stumbled across a small article in a Twin Cities paper about the Charles Erie portrait. I found it interesting that there was no real foundation for criticism, but the article was hinting at an underlying question or criticism. Which was, now that you’ve gained a large and global audience, do you feel more responsibility for the way in which you represent people and the portraits. The question itself is absurd, but in a way…
AS: I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily absurd, but go on…
DS: Well I suppose the point being, is that it accurately reflects the way people outside of the art world will think about your “responsibility” or how you deal with portraiture.
AS: That has really, really changed (laughter). I recently had my first serious incident with a picture, which, for complicated reasons, I didn’t have a release for [the subject of the portrait], and I didn’t have contact information for. It turned into a whole nightmare saga of potential legal action. And it was so depressing.
Of course when I made that picture of Charles, no one was paying any attention to what I was working on, so the thought that someone would take issue wasn’t there. So yes, that’s something that has changed. I always talk about how portraiture of strangers is epically ethically questionable. Like I said earlier, I’m not on a mission, my only mission is my own little art project (laughter). It’s this self-indulgent little thing, and I’m using people for that. I mean, that bothers me, and it does bother me now that there is more exposure. It doesn’t stop me from doing it. As crimes go, it’s not like robbing a bank, but it’s still nothing I’m proud of. However, I can sometimes over do the kill guilt too. I mean a lot of people love [being the subject of a portrait], the attention, they love the prints, and it can be a happy thing. But the knowledge that it’s going to be potentially out in the world changes things. I take a lot of pictures and I never know which ones are going to be out there. There’s a phenomenon in photography, like in music, where everyone latches on to one song, everyone latches on to one image, and it’s hard to know which one that is going to be. So the Charles phenomenon was peculiar.
DS: Again, reading the article, there didn’t seem to be a real foundation for criticism, and there didn’t necessarily seem to be too much criticism happening. They were after an acknowledgment that wasn’t easily defined, and it wasn’t defined in the article. And I guess the question I’m trying to ask is, did you notice a philosophical shift that stemmed from the gaining attention? Now that the pictures are put out into the world on a much larger scale, are you shifting a both a working methodology and, I guess, a philosophical inquiry in terms of taking pictures of people?
AS: I’d like to say it doesn’t but I’m sure on some level it does. But it’s hard for me to define it. Like I can’t even imagine or remember what it was like to have no one care, I wasn’t going to do anything with the pictures. So it’s really different now. It’s not like I have written down some sort of philosophical shift, but it exists somewhere. And there is one thing I should add to this. And that’s because I’ve become increasingly nihilistic about photography, and not for those reasons necessarily. But I’ve always have had real frustrations with the limitations with the medium, and those ethical issues don’t help me. And sometimes I get really crabby about photography and how it functions.
DS: Right, I’ve read that you’ve said photography really isn’t a great medium for story telling, and so is that where your frustrations stem from?
AS: Well, that photography is just not good for storytelling, yes. I also just think photography was much more interesting 50 plus years ago, and now there is just this overabundance of photography. It’s like saying “What type of art do you do?” “Oh, I do Twitter.” (laughter). I just put these little fragments out in the world, but I would rather call myself a novelist than a Twitterist. And I sometimes feel photography is that.
DS: Next I’d like to talk about a shift I’ve noticed in your work, and perhaps something that other people have noticed as well. Your old work was very much about loneliness. People on the fringes, landscapes really on the fringes. I see it perhaps as how you deal with being lonely on the road. I know for me, and many other photographers who go out and make work “on the road” there is a certain loneliness that plagues the entire trip that also, oddly enough, informs and inspires work and meeting strangers. So is that reflection something that you openly embrace and that comes out in the final images?
AS: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I love loneliness. I enjoy it, it’s like taking a bath in it. I want it in the work, definitely.
DS: Well, with the shift I’m trying to address, with The Last Days of W seems to give cause to loneliness and isolation. Through the title alone you begin to assign elements of our culture to positions of causation. On top of that, the motifs employed in the images and narrative no longer causally reference ideas and ideologies but the reader is really firmly allowed to identify a reality of American life. The military, surveillance, televised media, religion, public figures in powerful positions, etc. Is this an attempt to take a step back from the poetic?
AS: That’s a really interesting reading of the work; I didn’t think about it in those terms, I think that’s great. But that’s not necessarily intentional. I mean, for years I’ve been working on this other body of work, which I don’t really want to talk about, but it really isn’t like The Last Days of W at all, and it’s the work I’m most involved with. That particular newspaper [The Last Days of W], it wasn’t a book, and it was never intended to be a book. I’ve been doing these big assignments all over America, and I had all this work. It was just this time in America, and we all experience it, and it was like “this is what we are all dealing with,” and I just need to mark it.
And I thought I want this newspaper, so that 20 years from now I will have this yellowed newspaper that I can show my kids. I wanted to mark this period of time for myself, and so because it was produced quickly, it didn’t have all that intense consideration that I normally try to give to my books.
DS: It was more of a compilation of images…
AS: Yes, a compilation. The assignment that started the project was one that I was given that was too show America’s influence and status in the world, so it was definitely on my mind. I was traveling with this British journalist and seeing the country a little bit through his eyes. I was also working on another project, and I was with these two French filmmakers, and I would see the country through their eyes. I just felt like, yeah I should make some little mark.
And the newspaper was my way of saying, I don’t think that this point in time is going to be that important in the long run, it’s a passing thing.
DS: Overall, do you view the work as a shift from previous effort?
AS: Yes, it definitely was, and I never saw myself as that kind of social commentary photographer.
DS: But that’s what you’re doing here, right?
AS: Yeah, a little bit. And it’s funny because Sleeping by the Mississippi in Europe is read as some sort of social commentary, and I never intended to have it be that. But that’s fine. And here I was, actually doing it. I just felt exhausted. As a society, we were beaten down. And I just wanted to get that feeling of being worn out. At the time, I didn’t know which way the election was going to go, and it was hard to be optimistic. So, yes, it’s just a marker of that feeling. But, for myself, I wouldn’t say that the “loneliness on the road” stuff is really caused by the more political situations.
DS: I suppose I meant more the people on the fringes, again those landscapes on the fringes, your own loneliness that informs the pictures and the loneliness that is put forth by the pictures themselves. I think it’s important to be poetic, but maybe with the Last Days of W you’re acknowledging a more concrete reality for Americans, maybe loneliness, but also among more grounded social ills.
AS: I think that’s fair.
DS: I want to shift a little here and talk about your work with Magnum. I’ve noticed that you are shooting in a more Magnum-tradition while on assignment for the organization. I’m thinking of the stories “Chimp Havens” and “Swamp Nurse” in particular.
AS: (laughter) That was the most nightmarish job I ever took!
DS: Do you feel like going into that?
AS: Sure, it’s funny, I think it’s a hysterical story. I wasn’t an editorial photographer. I was always working on the fine art side of things. And I made this decision that I didn’t think the art would sustain itself so I had to remain smart about that. I needed to diversify, and teaching didn’t seem right, so I started taking jobs. In the beginning I took all sorts of things. The New York Times Magazine is one of the great venues for photography, so you always want to say yes to them. The Chimp Havens story came up, and although it was still early on for me in terms of doing editorial work, it was too hard to turn down.
It was crazy though! Go to New Mexico, Louisiana and Florida over the course of 4 days, travel to these remote areas, fly there, drive around. There were these chimp havens, for these chimps that had been the subject of scientific research, many of whom had never been outside of cages. The Times had a huge crazy deadline, which is why I had to do so quickly. They were like “leave tomorrow, have the whole thing done Sunday and shoot digitally.” It was a nightmare.
I got attacked by fire ants, there were digital camera issues, the chimps were completely traumatized, so it was hard to get close to them. It was just horrendous. And I wasn’t proud of the work at all. It was equipment I wasn’t comfortable with. It was a cover story, and probably because I didn’t have a great picture, they had an illustrator doto the cover, and it was a terrible illustration that I found demeaning to the whole story. So it was a disaster overall, and I’ve had many, many disasters since, it’s the nature of that business. I’ve gotten way savvier of what to take and what not to take.
DS: And so that was an early foray into editorial work?
AS: Yeah that was pretty early. And I hadn’t worked digitally that much. I was juggling too many things. But, I’m a notorious and relentless whiner (laughter), but it’s just hard, hard to make something great, so…but I like the challenge of it.
DS: Are those the types of assignments Magnum is generally finding for you? I noticed that there is a very different approach and aesthetic that is featured on your Magnum profile than your personal work.
AS: The one thing about the Magnum website is that I’m not good about updating it. So it’s a big mess when you go in there, and I’m a little embarrassed about that. There’s lots of stuff that I’ve done with them that you don’t see. I actually work much closer to my style these days, I’m more confident to do that. Although when the job requires it, I work in different ways. Sometimes they get me editorial work, but mostly I get calls directly. I just talked to the New York Times a couple days ago and they forgot I was with Magnum, so I have to remind them of that. Magnum gets me big commissions. That’s the primary role they play in my life. For example, I recently did a big commission for the Republic of Georgia, which was fantastic.
DS: Are you noticing a more paradigm shift with the agency? You are Alessandra Sanguinetti are frequently referred to as the flagship art photographers of Magnum, which I know is talked about endlessly. And then there is Mikhael Subotzky, who marries the tradition and the new direction that you and Alessandra may or may not embrace. So if you recognize this shift, has this paradigm-shift in Magnum informed your working relationship with the organization?
AS: I think it’s something that has been going on for a long time, Magnum has always had a little bit of this. Even Capa and Cartier-Bresson had represented two different sides, and other people have entered into the equation. There is definitely more diversity now. Martin Parr was a biggie, and very controversial, he opened up the floodgates. I think for the most part the younger generation doesn’t care about these distinctions, after all, we are all photographers, we are all pretty much dealing with stuff out in the world. We are all inspired by each other and the diversity, which is, for me, what is so great about Magnum. How many staged photographers do I need to hang out with (laughter). It’s great to hang out with someone who is working in Afghanistan, I learn a lot from that. For me, that’s a big reason to be in Magnum, the community aspect. A couple of weeks ago, we had our annual meeting, it was in London, and it’s such a great time to hang out with these people. The organization is going through tremendous changes, it’s very painful. Not because of different personalities, but the business model of old doesn’t work anymore.
DS: In terms of the shift away from print? Is Magnum trying to reinvent itself?
AS: Well with the death of print media, how do editorial photographers make a living anymore? Nobody has figured this out, newspapers haven’t figured this out, and there is of course the collapsing economy.
DS: I want to end on a more pragmatic note. Too Much Chocolate’s audience consists primarily of young and emerging photographers. Often younger artists read interviews starving for “advice” and they want insight to someone famous’ process and methodology. It’s as if suddenly everything will click for them and then they will be able to do that! I personally find those types of interviews to be offensively boring and irrelevant.
That being said, one thing we can gain from the insight of established artists is the reality of maintaining a business, especially with a family to support and future personal work to fund! Has the business side always come natural to you, or did you learn to hustle as you went along?
AS: I was never the entrepreneurial type person. I was raised in a traditional value type family, so you always had a job and I always worked for someone and didn’t know how to run a business whatsoever. In 2003, when my work got out there and I suddenly had to run this operation it was a crazy time. Dealing with the realities of stuff like packaging up a print or invoicing or dealing with the physical space I was in, and renting things and hiring someone to work for me, what it’s like to be a manager, etc. It was such a learning experience. And now, I do enjoy that. And it’s really opened my eyes.
Someone asked me recently if I weren’t a photographer, what would I want to do? I actually really love that entrepreneurial aspect of the photography business, so maybe I would do that. I’m not so much into the business hustle, well just a little bit of it. Really the running of an operation and not depending on someone else to make decisions for you.
Just earlier today, a young photographer visited me to show me work, he had just moved to town. And he was working with people in a really interesting way, and it had a strong commercial aspect. He was trying to figure out where to go from here, whether or not to attend graduate school or to assist photographers, etc. I was just like wow, you know you got this work that has actual commercial appeal and can help people, why not invest all that energy that you would invest in school, and all that money and invest it in this endeavor. So it’s really all about taking control of your life.
One of the things that really amazes me when I visit art schools is that students are apparently learning creativity and then when it comes to your life outside of school it’s so uncreative! “I either teach or go to grad school or I assist somebody.” That’s it. (laughter). But there are other things out there!